Itching and scratching: 18th Century Flea Traps

A Girl in a Kitchen (La chercheuse de puce) by Nicolas Lancret (c) The Wallace Collection; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
A Girl in a Kitchen (La chercheuse de puce) by Nicolas Lancret
(c) The Wallace Collection; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
Women Bathing by Nicolas Lancret (c) The Wallace Collection; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

So, you are a grandly dressed Georgian lady with a fully powdered head of hair, fashionably coiffed but with a few little inhabitants. Scratch, scratch! How would you rid yourself of fleas?

Back in the eighteenth-century fleas were a common problem for all classes and would happily live in beds, inside wigs, on pets and everyone was prey to them. Bathing of course helped and there was the tried and tested method of painstakingly searching for and picking off the little critters. The Parisian artist Nicolas Lancret (1690-1743), in a couple of his genre paintings, depicted some ladies searching themselves for fleas (and offering the viewer a titillating glimpse of flesh while doing so).

One other way that was popular for a short period in the eighteenth-century, was to use a flea-trap which became something of a popular fashion accessory. It consisted of a hollow perforated cylindrical tube, sometimes ornately carved and made of silver or ivory. Inside was a small rod tuft of fur or a piece of cloth. This would be smeared with a few drops of blood to attract the fleas, along with fat and/or honey resin, designed to make the fleas stick fast to it as they crawled inside and which was removed as necessary to get rid of them.

The flea trap was worn on a ribbon as a necklace, hanging down inside a dress – it could also be placed in a bed to attempt to rid that of fleas. A German doctor named Franz Ernst Brückmann (1697-1753) designed the first flea trap in the early 1700s.

Flea - trap Louth museum
Flea trap held at Louth Museum

 

 

Louth museum in Lincolnshire holds one, although they are unsure of the date of their flea trap. It is made of ivory, with a carved pattern and measures 7cm in length and 1½cm in width.

The French name for the flea was ‘la puce’, which is supposedly how we have the name for the colour today – it is taken from the colour of a squashed flea or one full of blood or from the bloodstains left behind by a flea on the bedsheets.

La Puce. Seated young woman, unveiling her breasts whilst trying to catch a flea. © The Trustees of the British Museum
La Puce. Seated young woman, unveiling her breasts whilst trying to catch a flea. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Reputedly, this brownish purple was one of Marie Antoinette’s favourite colours, and it was Louis XVI who jokingly compared it to the colour of a flea and so named it.

From Domestic anecdotes of the French nation, during the last thirty years, indicative of the French revolution, written in 1800 by Isaac D’Israeli (author and father of the British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli):

In the summer of 1775, the queen being dressed in a brown lutestring, the king good humouredly observed, it was “couleur de puce”, the colour of fleas; and instantly every lady would be drest in a lutestring of a flea colour. The mania was caught by the men; and the dyers in vain exhausted themselves to supply the hourly demand. They distinguished between, an old and a young flea, and they subdivided even the shades of the body of this insect; the belly, the back, the thigh, and the head, were all marked by varying shades of this colour. This prevailing tint promised to be the fashion of the winter. The venders of silk, found that it would he pernicious to their trade; they therefore presented new sattins to her majesty, who having chosen one of a grey ash-colour, Monsieur, exclaimed that it was the colour of her majesty’s hair! Immediately the fleas ceased to be favourites, and all were eager to be drest in the colour of her majesty’s hair. Servants were sent off at the moment from Fontainebleau to Paris, to purchase velvets, rateens and cloths of this colour. The current price in the morning had been forty livres per ell, and it rose towards the evening to the price of eighty to ninety livres.

Gallerie des Modes et Costumes Français, 1778 via the British Library
Gallerie des Modes et Costumes Français, 1778 via the British Library

We’ll end with a couple of satirical prints. We think the people in these could do with a flea trap!

© Lewis Walpole Library
© Lewis Walpole Library
An old maid in search of a flea, 1794. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Sources:

Irritating Intimates: The Archaeoentomology of Lice, Fleas, and Bedbugs by Allison Bain

Louth museum and blog

Domestic anecdotes of the French nation, during the last thirty years, indicative of the French revolution, by Isaac D’Israeli

The Last Days of Marie Antoinette

It is impossible for us to ignore one of the major events of the French Revolution, the execution of Marie Antoinette which took place on 16th October 1793 given our interest in the French Revolution and her reputed acquaintance with Grace Dalrymple Elliott, so with that in mind we thought it might be an idea to take a ‘whistle-stop tour’ of just a few of her paintings and of course, in our usual manner, if slightly disrespectful, we simply had to include a couple of caricatures of her  too. We also came across some newspaper reports about her last days which we simply had to include.

Unlike Grace and many others of her time for whom very few, if any paintings still exist, Marie Antoinette totally spoils us with so many remaining for us to enjoy, making it difficult to select just a few. She was one of the most painted celebrities of her day, even right up to her execution.

Our first offering is one from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and is dated 1775, so when Marie was just a mere 20 years old and some five years after her marriage to  Louis XVI. We have to say that in our opinion she looks much older than her age, so it’s not very flattering, but it clearly highlights her long slender neck – who could possibly have foreseen how events would end when this image was produced!Marie 1775 - met museum

Our next is again from the Metmuseum but has no artist nor date, but one that we like very much for its beautiful simplicity, not at all like some of the highly elaborate paintings that exist of her.

Unknown artist - Marie

Marie’s most notable portraits were those painted by the artist Elizabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun, this one painted around 1783 being our favourite one. Her luscious blue dress, with copious amounts of lace and that beautiful ‘old fashioned’ pale pink rose, quite possibly the highly scented rose, ‘Autumn Damask’ or ‘Cuisse de nymphe’. If anyone can identify it we would love to hear from you.

queen-marie-antoinette-of-france-1783

This next portrait is in stark contrast to the previous one. Marie making quite a statement in her low cut beautiful red velvet dress accompanied by her two children.

Red velvet

Our next two as promised are caricatures of her, the first a search for her being carried out with Marie disappearing out of the door whilst they try to kill her in her bed.

The next, the Royal Runaways as Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI are trying to make their escape, but are captured.Marie 1791 - lewis walpole

We move to her last few days and in a newspaper article referring to her time in the Conciergerie which confirmed that the total number of prisoners in Paris prisons at that time as being some 2,989. Life, although extremely cramped, was described as being one of mirth and gaiety, guzzling Bordeaux with their dinner which was described as splendid and sumptuous, suppers consisted of ham and salad* – how accurate a reflection of the truth we could not say.

According to the St James’s Chronicle of November 21, 1793,  Marie’s situation was in stark contrast, she was confined to a small cell, half underground and a mere 8 feet by feet –

‘her bed was made of straw, one mattress and an old tattered coverlid, and terrible to tell she was continually and in all situations in the presence of four Gens d’Armes, who never quitted her chamber. Her food was such as given to common prisoners ; her health was visibly declining; her hair became grey;  and the monsters fearing her natural death might deprive them of  their wretched victim hurried her to the scaffold.

Some days before her death she was wearing black and even sleeping in her mournful attire, expecting every instant to be dragged from her bed of woe by executioners. She wished to die in mourning for her unfortunate consort, but the barbarous regicides deprived her even of this last consolation and compelled her to put on a white waistcoat’.

A further report in the same newspaper, dated 3rd October 1793 sheds a little more light of her situation :

‘She rises every day at 7 o’clock and goes to bed at 10 o’clock  at night.  She enjoys a good appetite her breakfast consists of chocolate and a small roll; dinner of soup, fowl, mutton chops etc. She only drinks water and is in this respect said to imitate the late Empress Maria Teresa her mother, who never drank wine. She performs the business of her own toilet with great care. Her eyes are red from weeping and restlessness; her hair turned grey. Her looks still remain sweet and her deportment royal and majestic’.

Marie_Antoinette_Cell

At midday Marie reached Place de la Revolution; she showed some emotion but quickly regained her composure, climbed the steps to the scaffold. A mere fifteen minutes later the blade came down – Marie Antoinette died just two weeks before her 38th birthday.

According to the English newspaper reports that appeared following her execution, she was described as having

‘preserved a calm and steady countenance. During the first hours of her trial she played with her fingers upon the bar of the chair with an appearance of unconcern  and it seemed as if she were playing on the piano-forte’.**

Our final offering shows the demise of Marie Antoinette and was a sketch by Jacques Louis David, the sketch requires little explanation in our opinion.

Marie guillotine David

We also came across this highlighted document listing everyone who was sent to the guillotine and is an immensely helpful resource as it includes Marie Antoinette.

 

Sources Used

* Public Advertiser Friday, November 1, 1793

** The Star  Friday, November 8, 1793